Floating Houses

Living in a houseboat is like inhabiting a shell, like a nautilus moving through chambered rooms worn smooth by use and bathed by water music. An empty houseboat, like an empty shell, inspires daydreams of refuge.

Snow on Lake Washington houseboats. Photo attribution: Cap’n Surly on flickr

There is something about water that compels us to dream. I’ve dreamed of a house where the kitchen floor remains partially unplanked and a stream flows through it. On crisp mornings fog would rise from the water and condense on the window glass; frogs would croak; the kitchen would be full of water music. I’ve seen a house on Bainbridge Island made from a covered bridge that spanned a creek. Transparent panels were set in the floor. It must have been like walking on water. And at Point No Point on the Kitsap Peninsula the bridge of a tramp freighter has been made into a house with running lights. I wonder if the steel still smells of salt.


The community of houseboats on Lake Washington is like a dream in bright colors. Photo attribution: Ambrosia apples on flickr

Perhaps there is a lingering, molecular memory of the time before we crawled out of the sea onto the shore, surrendered weightlessness and succumbed to unconscionable gravity. Perhaps the sound of water invokes that ancient memory. We have no adequate words; the memory precedes language. Even poets describe only its shadow.

Fish nor Fowl

A houseboat is neither one nor the other, neither house nor boat. A house isn’t meant to float; a boat isn’t meant to remain fixed to the shore. A houseboat doesn’t wholly belong to concrete earth or mutable water. Instead, it occupies the borderland, the crack between worlds where it is possible to dream without constraint. What more perfect shell for dreams is imaginable than waves lapping against the hull, fog rising from the water, a fire burning behind the grate and shadows polishing the walls?

Houseboats are populated by lawyers, doctors, dentists, tax accountants but are still considered bohemian by most of us. We look askance at the impracticality, the impermanence, the lack of real estate or resale value. Communities of houseboats occupy the periphery, the edge of respectability, like trailer parks. Marin County redefined them as landfill in order to remove them from Sausalito’s waterfront view.

Perspective of a houseboat sailor. Photo attribution: Bev and Steve on flickr

In The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard mentions a mollusk called the Grand Benitier (Great Baptismal Font) so large each bi-valve weighs 500 to 500 pounds. Wealthy Chinese mandarins made bathtubs from the shells. Such a bathtub would perfectly furnish a houseboat.

I’ve lived onboard boats and I suspect my dreams have been more compact, more seaworthy. A houseboat allows more room to dream. And what dreams might be imaginable immersed in a Mandarin’s bathtub floating on the water?

Houseboats reflected on Lake Washington. Photo attribution: Jonathan Hanlon on flickr.

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